People fear the things hidden in darkness. The world bathed in daylight is defined and comprehensible, but in the darkness it becomes unknowable. The hegemony granted by wealth, tenure, or power is undone. Things change and vanish. Night favors the attacker, reduces mutual support, and raises uncertainty. The terrain becomes foreign, passersby become villains. Night de-territorializes even a known neighborhood, which is why crime and vandalism occur so often within its precincts. Criminals are not the only ones to favor darkness. Young people seek it out for novelty, and older people to relive their wilder days.
Which is really safer, darkness or light? When night falls in the woods we build fires to keep away predators. But if we are pursued, darkness represents safety, and light identifies the target. Night carries minimal visual information, but encourages compensatory sensations – heightened smell and taste, greater response to noise, and reliance upon tactile input when we sneak upstairs on counted footsteps or brush a hand along well-known groupings of furniture. What is lost to experience by the surfeit of light we work under, both night and day?
Night offers the possibility of escape. Virginia Woolf wrote in Street Haunting: A London Adventure, “The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.” It provides the opportunity for even the upright citizen to stray: to drink with friends in the street, shout stories of long ago exploits, stop transfixed at a store window filled with treasures of immense value and dream. Darkness offers anonymity. Anyone could be anyone. Humans need the disguise of night not necessarily because they will do something nefarious, but because the inversion of light fulfils their inner need for chaos.
I designed and occupied the least defensible home in town. There were eight doors, in five locations. There were fifty-seven windows inviting views, and people passing at night could see straight through the house. There was no fence around the site and no screened porch between the outside and the front doors. Wildlife roamed the adjacent lots, empty since Hurricane Katrina, with plenty of hiding places of their own. We had no alarm and no security system, but still felt comfortable within its walls because the neighborhood and the city are essentially safe. There were people on the street at all hours, families nearby, and scattered lights at night. Our unfenced perimeter let us see what was coming. We had a direct and visceral connection to the sky and the surroundings, and knew the climate and the forecast at a glance through the window, rather than at the television screen.
The design of this house relied on trust, and we placed our confidence in the community to remain reasonably secure. Therefore, we committed our resources to helping it remain safe through taxes, civic engagement, and participation in street-wide events. The defence of our homes begins well beyond our personal borders, and walls are no substitute for attention and diplomacy.